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What is a labor relations consultant? How can hiring a labor relations consultant affect employee relations? There are labor consultants and labor relations consultants. Adding "relations" to the description changes things, like the consultant's focus. Instead of appearing on the scene only when adverse events like a union organizing campaign begin, the labor relations consultants work with employers to build better connections between people in the workplace. Developing positive employee relations and high employee engagement is a proactive approach to developing good connections between employees and leadership, contributing to a positive organizational culture. Though union avoidance seems like a major goal when employing the services of labor relations consultants, it is only one goal among other equally important ones. Positive employee relations lead to lower turnover, higher productivity, better communication in the workforce, and less tension and stress in the workforce. For these reasons, a labor relations consultant develops a holistic and proactive strategy to improve positive employee relations rather than simply being reactive to union organizing at the moment.
Labor relations consulting is different from labor consulting. Labor consulting is often more transactional because it often focuses on what is needed now. It could be developing a rapid response team, responding to signs of union organizing, addressing unfair labor practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), reviewing the employee handbook because of employee challenges to policies, or developing responses to disputes between organizational management and employees in the hopes the dispute doesn't grow into a protest or walkout. A labor consultant is primarily concerned with union-focused response strategies.
The labor relations consultant begins work with a focus on people and their relationships within the organization. Good employee relationships with leadership bring many benefits, including union avoidance, lower turnover, and a more satisfied workforce. However, building strong employee relations is not as simple as developing a union avoidance strategy. It requires a strategic approach to improving the set of working condition factors, including communication and especially the employee feedback system and leadership soft skills that make unions unnecessary.
The turmoil and disruption that businesses have experienced emphasize the need for positive employee relations because difficult decisions are necessary. Some of those difficult decisions can trigger union organizing. As Jennifer Orechwa, an employee engagement expert and Director of Business Development at IRI Consultants, says, "In any company, the quality of the relationship management has with employees is a major factor in how people react to these difficult decisions. Union employees must refer to their union contract to give tough decisions context – but employees who enjoy the advantages of being union-free depend on their relationship with management. In a non-union environment, team members value their direct relationships and connections. They know that senior leaders, managers, and supervisors always have their best interests in mind, and their needs have been considered in the decision-making process."
How can hiring a labor relations consultant affect employee relations? Though excellent internal communication strategies that support strong relationships are essential to positive employee relations, a proactive strategic approach also depends on powerful organizational development tools and digital resources needed to engage today's employees.
One of the best ways to demonstrate the importance of a proactive approach rather than reacting to union activity is to share a March 2023 NLRB Administrative Law decision involving Starbucks. The judge said Starbucks violated the NLRB hundreds of times to affect employee organizing efforts through "egregious and widespread misconduct demonstrating a general disregard for the employees' fundamental rights." The penalties are severe, as described by the NLRB.
His decision requires Starbucks to—among other remedies—reinstate unlawfully fired workers and if they are unable to return, instate qualified applicants of the union's choice; reimburse workers for consequential harm they suffered as a result of Starbucks's unlawful conduct; union access and equal time to respond; post a notice electronically, including on all forms of social media, and at all U.S. stores and with an explanation of workers' rights; bargain with the union; reopen an unlawfully closed facility; conduct ongoing training; and have Starbucks Execs Howard Schultz, and Denise Nelson read the Notice to Employees and an Explanation of Rights or be present during a reading by a Board agent to the employees in the Buffalo-area stores.
Starbucks management reacted to union organizing which led to the filing of unfair labor charges.
Labor Relations consultants are in the field and know what is working now to enable management to connect with employees; this is true both in a preventive sense as well as if you receive an election petition. Independent union organizing is a good example of how things have dramatically changed in the workplace. "The organizing process has a new playbook," according to a Senior Consultant at IRI Consultants, "presenting a strategic and persuasive challenge. The old playbook was to communicate everything wrong with the labor union, but what is a good strategy when there is nothing to go on." An experienced labor relations consultant understands what independent union organizers are most concerned with and what drives employees to begin organizing.
Ideally, you adopt a proactive strategy to develop positive employee relations, avoid unionization, and be prepared to respond to indications of union organizing. The proactive approach creates a supportive organizational culture that supports developing and maintaining employee engagement. Being proactive with a holistic approach to building a better workplace rather than reacting to a labor organizing event delivers many more ongoing benefits.
Labor relations consultants assist with developing the holistic approach to positive employee relations within the framework of events and conditions like a pro-union National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) making decisions clearly focused on making unionizing easier and limiting employer responses, the surge in independent labor unions spurred by younger employees, threats of a faltering economy, and industries facing significant changes due to technology. The labor relations consultant is a union avoidance consultant who addresses areas of union vulnerability comprehensively and holistically.
The younger generations of workers – millennials and Gen Z – believe in the individualization of the employment relationship. Employee engagement doesn't only refer to the workforce's collective relationship with management, which clearly adds complexity to developing positive employee relations. Employees want communication channels that enable individual and collective employee voices. The collective voice channels should be the internal communication system, but when employees are dissatisfied with a lack of voice, they make the union their collective voice.
Consultants can help you step back and look back at your overall communications, including your strategy, messaging, channels, and more, to ensure you're connecting with employees. Digital communication is a core competence.
Chris Craddock, Production Operations Manager for IRI Consultants Digital Solutions Group, says, "To be holistic and provide meaningful 'digital content' to employees, you should start before day one. Start positive company messaging during recruitment and continue with digital content through onboarding, ongoing training, and labor relations messaging during union campaigns. Also, don't forget about teaching leaders how to effectively communicate with things like skills training and union avoidance training." Digit solutions in labor include using video (online and off), websites, eLearning, texting, and podcasts, among other digital tools.
Mike Lake, Managing Director at IRI Consultants, explains, "You need multiple channels, tailored content, and flexibility for successful communications. To be an exceptional communicator, you must know your audience and message, humanize the information, be a great listener, provide feedback, avoid talking down to employees, recognize the importance of nonverbal communication, and align communications with company goals." A great communication system is a continuous loop in which communicators can freely express their ideas and concerns.
Organizational culture has a direct impact on employee relations. When the culture is not conducive to engaging employees, union vulnerability increases. When a crisis occurs, union vulnerability rises. When employees don't have a voice, union vulnerability increases. Union vulnerability increases when a company goes through a major change, like a merger or closing of a manufacturing plant, or a layoff. Even a change in the executive suite can lead to lower employee engagement. Labor relations consultants leading the labor-focused organizational development process consider all the factors influencing employee relations and union vulnerability to help corporate leaders manage both strategy and tactics.
Joanna Duenas, IRI Consultants Senior Organizational Development Consultant, explains, "The trigger for organizational development work is change – crisis change or chosen change. By definition, change management is the application of a structured process and set of tools for leading the people side of change to achieve a desired outcome. Employee engagement is a series of actions and steps that require the input and involvement of organizational members (the people) and consistent, continuous, and clear communications. Employee engagement is based on trust, integrity, two-way commitment, and communication between an organization and its employees. The key functions associated with change management also share a strong relationship to employee engagement."
There are five steps in organizational development (OD) strategizing: recognition of a need and selecting of a consultant, diagnosis of the change occurring or planned and related issues, the gathering of feedback from stakeholders, developing a solution, and creating an evaluation system to keep the OD strategy on track. The OD strategy can address strategic planning, digital communication systems, employee engagement, leadership development, human processes, or whatever else is involved in the change or crisis initiative.
Your leaders should also recognize that labor relations consultants assist organizations that are already unionized or non-union. A change initiative in a unionized company has a new level of challenges because of the need to work with union leaders within the confines of the collective bargaining agreement.
What is a labor relations consultant? A labor relations consultant's skills include expertise in various industries, excellent communication skills, project management skills, data collection and analysis, people skills like emotional intelligence, and business acumen that comes with experience. The union avoidance consultant has deep knowledge of labor union behaviors but can think outside the box in addressing traditional and independent union organizing. To remain effective, labor relations consultants must stay on top of unionizing trends, and the changing needs of the workforce as millennials and Gen Z enter the workforce in more significant numbers.
How do you become a labor relations consultant? Most labor relations consultants have at least a bachelor's degree in human resources, labor relations, business, or industrial relations. Labor law attorneys that move into labor relations consulting assist companies with responding to NLRB and Department of Labor charges, strikes, union organizing campaigns, and advising on positive employee relations to avoid unionization.
The labor relations consultants train leaders in labor relations, assist with union contract negotiations, help companies reduce the risk of union organizing, develop corporate communications strategies, facilitate coaching leaders in positive employee relations, and develop videos, eLearning programs, websites, texting campaigns, and other digital tools that are customized to meet employer needs. As the wave of unionization efforts grows stronger and the strategies employees use to unionize change, there is a need for labor relations consultants who are experienced but also agile, creative, innovative, and have high levels of people skills.
Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.